By Sonam Yangzom
In the serene Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where spirituality and nature intertwine seamlessly, a paradoxical issue has taken root – Lungta, the fluttering prayer flags believed to carry blessings on the wind, have become agents of environmental degradation and destruction. As these sacred symbols of merit adorn every available surface, a 66-year-old retired civil servant named Sonam Phuntsho has taken it upon himself to champion the cause of sustainable tradition and safeguarding the fragile ecosystem.
For generations, Bhutanese people have raised Lungta on every occasion, from births to marriages to important milestones, as a way to accrue merit in their spiritual journey. However, the blind adherence to this custom has inadvertently led to the desecration of the very environment that provides them with life-sustaining oxygen. The Lungta, once symbols of benevolence, have now turned into silent killers, suffocating trees and ensnaring unsuspecting animals.
Phuntsho, with his deep concern for both spiritual heritage and nature’s well-being, has spent the last one decade unraveling prayer flags from their entangled grasp on the landscape. His latest mission is to cleanse the Sangaygang area, a popular spot among hikers, families on picnics, and Lungta enthusiasts. Instead of a scenic mountain adorned with sacred blessings, Sangaygang has been transformed into a graveyard of wasted prayer flags.
Gazing at the discarded Lungta strewn across the ground, Phuntsho laments, “How can we expect to gather merits from these wasted prayer flags?” He understands that there’s a right way to hoist these flags – high in the mountains and in clean, open spaces where the wind can carry their blessings to all corners. Yet, the current landscape is a stark contrast, with prayer flags crammed onto roadsides, tethered tightly to each other and to trees.
“The wind can’t carry the prayers if the flags are suffocating under their own weight,” Phuntsho asserts. With wisdom borrowed from Khempo at Tango, he advocates for a return to the traditional practice, one that respects both the spiritual intent and the natural balance.
Renowned artist Azha Karma calls these neglected flags as “wasted prayer flags.” He sheds light on how the traditional textiles, designed to break down over time, now endure due to modern materials. The ropes used to bind the Lungta to trees are often made of plastic, silently strangling young saplings and robbing the earth of new life. Karma, however, has found a way to breathe new life into the discarded Lungta by repurposing them for his artwork, championing recycling and creativity in one stroke.
While the government has erected signboards urging mindful flag placement, the attempts have proven fruitless. Prayer flags continue to be affixed even atop these signs, indicating a challenge that is as much cultural as it is environmental. Bhutan sees thousands of new flags erected every month, while tree planting is reserved for a single day – June 2.
Sonam Phuntsho’s crusade has not been without criticism. He’s been accused of undermining tradition and disrespecting the teachings of his ancestors. Yet, his efforts are striking a chord with the younger generation, who recognize the importance of preserving the air they breathe and the nature that sustains them.
As Sonam Phuntsho sets out to clean the Sangaygang, he symbolizes the delicate balancing act that Bhutan must navigate in the face of a changing world. He is a living embodiment of the belief that tradition and progress can coexist harmoniously, that spiritual merit can be earned without compromising the environment that offers life’s most essential element – clean air.